How (Not) to Write a Series, Part 1
This post originally appeared in Deborah's blog.
Today, I’m going to be talking a bit about things that ruin (or at least bring down) a book series . . . when I loved the first book. These aren’t absolute rules; but I do think they’re things to consider when writing. Thinking about them has certainly prevented me from doing some things I really dislike in other authors. All of the examples I use below are from real books by good writers.
So, without further ado:
1) Changing protagonists between books. I’ve read a couple of trilogies in which each book in the trilogy is written from a different character’s point of view. In each case, the trilogy gets further and further from the original protagonist, so that that character is barely a footnote in book 3. Why do I hate this? Because I get very attached to my protagonists. I want to read more about them, not about some character I barely know or have never met.
Doing this right: In his Bartimaeus trilogy, Jonathan Stroud adds a protagonist (who does sometimes hold the narrative) for books 2 and 3. But he doesn’t get rid of his other protagonists. In the Animorphs series, K.A. Applegate rotates the narrative between six protagonists.
2) Excessive time lapses between books. In effect, having excessive gaps between books can be the same thing. If it’s been 10 years since we last saw our protagonist, who was then about 18, then the protagonist and surrounding characters are, in essence, different characters. I don’t want to know what happens to the hero in 10 years—I want to know what happens next.
Doing this right: The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher sometimes has a jump between books, but he doesn’t do it in a way that I feel I’ve missed anything. He fills the reader in. Basically, the jumps between books are of all the unimportant filler bits—just like the jumps inside books.
3) Nothing ever changes. This is in some ways the opposite problem to #2. Instead of too much changing, nothing ever changes. Maybe things will sometimes look like they’re going to change, but it’s one step forward, one step back. Soap operas do this a lot, and I find it very frustrating. I want things to progress at a reasonable rate! Otherwise, what’s even the point of having more than one book?
Doing this right: In the Nero Wolfe series, no one ever ages and neither of our protagonists gets married or moves away; they stay the same. But the story isn’t about them: it’s about the mystery. And the mystery is different in each book. Personally, I wish Sherlock Holmes had been written like this . . . indeed, most of the TV show adaptations use this method.
4) Changing genres between books. There is a series of books I absolutely love. They’re action-packed space opera . . . except that book 9 is instead a romance. Not even a very well-written romance. This isn’t an insult to romance novels, but if I want to read a romance series, I’ll read a romance series. You promised me awesome space action, darn it, so what’s this nonsense?
Doing this right: In the Alien franchise, Alien is a horror survival film but Aliens is more of a military sci-fi thriller; Alien 3 is tonally fatalistic; Prometheus is more of a philosophical, exploratory film with horror elements; and Alien: Covenant is a combination. Every film in the franchise feels like a different genre . . . yet somehow (with the exception of Alien: Resurrection, which felt to me like bad fanfiction), they work together.
Stay tuned for Part 2, which will be published in 2 weeks.
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